2007 July 29 Sunday
Developed And Developing Countries Misnamed

One of Tyler Cowen's New York Times articles illustrates a common misuse of the term "developing" to refer to countries with very low per capita GDPs.

It is unfortunate that economists have to debate whether natural resources are a blessing or a curse for a developing nation. Minerals, diamonds or oil may appear to represent automatic wealth but resource-rich countries usually become mired in corruption. High oil revenues, for instance, allow a government to maintain power and reward political supporters without doing much for its people. The government of Nigeria has taken in billions from high oil prices, yet the average person was probably better off 40 years ago. The easy-to-reach wealth of a resource also encourages coups, and thus political stability is problematic.

Note Tyler's reference to "a developing nation". Typically (and in his usage) this refers to really poor countries. Every country in Africa qualifies for the "developing" appellation. Yet most countries so labeled aren't doing much developing. It would make more sense to refer to them as undeveloped. Some might say "underdeveloped". But that implies there's some standard they should be compared to and it is not clear to me which standard that should be or why.

Similarly, the term "developed" nations gets used to refer to relatively rich countries such as the United States, Japan, Germany, France, and Britain. Yet these developed countries are still developing and increasing their per capita output of goods and services. The ratio of per capita GDP between the most developed and least developed countries is increasing, not decreasing.

I'm not trying to pick on Tyler here. I've misused these terms in the same fashion and so does just about every writer in mainstream media publications. But these usages amount to Orwellian speak. In realty the "developed" countries are still developing. They are growing, developing new technology, producing new kinds of technology, expanding economically. By contrast, most of the "developing" countries are not developing or they are developing more slowly. The gap between the haves and have-nots continues to widen. The more industrialized countries are not sitting still waiting for the poorer countries to catch up.

Some poor countries really are developing. China most dramatically illustrates the idea behind the use of "developing" to refer to poorer countries undergoing rapid per capita economic growth. But many other countries are not doing much development and use of the term "developing" to refer to them obscures what is really going on with them.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2007 July 29 10:58 PM  Media Critique

John S Bolton said at July 30, 2007 3:43 AM:

This also contradicts the flat-world thesis, since the gaps are widening even as transport and communications technology has vastly improved. First and third world were much closer 50 years ago, at the end of the imperialist projects, than today. A few hundred years ago the world really was close to uniform as to standard of living, and transport and communications technology were even more backward, so much so, that mass immigration was then inconceivable.

Audacious Epigone said at July 30, 2007 1:50 PM:

I'd always categorized the descriptors into three categories:

Developed = First world
Developing = China, India
Third-world = uh, Third world (destitute and not developing or doing so very slowly)

The "developed" insight is definitely useful, though.

Kenelm Digby said at July 31, 2007 4:41 AM:

Basically, the terms 'developed' and 'undeveloped' are mealy-mouthed, weasel euphemisms that some how foisted their way into public discourse sometime after the 1940s when egalitarianism and internationalism were all the rage.
The Victorians, would have used two blunt and honest terms to categorize human societies either:
Civilized and Uncivilized.
Cultured and Uncultured.

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